When I started gardening I had a small patio and a keen desire follow my father’s footsteps and grow fruit and vegetables, but I also wanted flowers and colour, so I started to learn about ways to combine the two. Now, 20 years on, I’m still exploring ways to create garden spaces which encourage relaxation and an enjoyment of the beauty of nature whilst also providing a harvest for the kitchen. Over the past 6 years we’ve turned our back garden into a family space which includes a willow den and lawn with climbing frame for the kids, a flowerbed, a fruit cage and two vegetable beds. I’ve tried to maximise our space by using both horizontal and vertical structures for plants and also by combining the aesthetic and productive wherever possible.
Three years ago we started work on the front, the aim being to create a hidden allotment – a space which would blend with the surrounding suburban front gardens and offer us a secret harvest throughout the year. As the size of modern gardens diminishes and the pressure on our outdoor spaces increases, it will become more important to combine productivity with aesthetic appeal. Here are a few of the ways we’ve been adding edibles to our outdoor spaces within an ornamental framework:
The front garden has changed from a sterile, unappealing lawn to a cheerful gravel garden filled with ornamental and edible plants
1. Eat a Hedge
Hedges are an great way to create separate areas, edge borders, establish boundaries and attract wildlife. They are also often used to add formality to a garden. With so many different functions, hedges are likely to be included in most gardens, creating an ideal opportunity to add an productive element. I have many low hedges in the garden – all evergreen and edible – and they provide a harvest throughout the year.
After discussing Chilean guava as an alternative to box hedging with James Wong a few years ago, I thought I’d try it as the edging to the front garden. It has matured over the past three years and it looks like being a good harvest this autumn despite keeping the hedge at only 50cm high. It hasn’t established as well as box, partly because it is more prone to dieback in cold weather and because I haven’t been as assiduous as I should have with watering and feeding, but it isn’t going to contract box blight and its berries are not only edible – they are truly delicious. The children love snacking on them and they work really well as tiny bursts of flavour in muesli and cupcakes. Best of all, when I am weeding or pruning in the front garden, the scent of the fruit from midsummer onwards saturates the air and makes all the hard work worthwhile.
I also have several rosemary and lavender hedges in the garden. I dry the lavender for scented bouquets in the house and add it to sugar for cakes and biscuits. The rosemary provides an invaluable year round harvest for adding to meat dishes, sprinkling over homemade chips and using in savoury biscuits. I’ve used the rosemary hedge in the front to trisect the garden, helping to disguise the rectangular shape. It almost disappears in summer as the flowers take over and then reappears in winter, adding definition and interest to the garden.
Lavender is generally used to edge the borders. There’s a hedge of dwarf lavender alongside the back flowerbed and one under the front windows. Hedges offer a wonderful opportunity to explore different varieties of lavender and we’re lucky enough to live close to Hitchin Lavender which has an extensive trial field. Summer often finds me wandering around the rows, learning about the different colours, foliage, habits and scents of this intoxicating plant. I grow ‘Twickel Purple’, ‘Dwarf Blue’, ‘Blue Ice’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ and wish I had room for more varieties.
Another way I’ve used hedges in the garden is to create compartments in the herb bed. When we moved to the house, the back garden had a long fence with an ugly concrete base which made the left side of the garden grey and monotonous. We planted alternating rosemary and lavender ‘hedgelets’ along the border to break up the line and create areas for different herbs – sage, mint, chives, oregano and thyme – arranged based on the increasing amount of sun as you go down the garden.
If taller and less formal hedges are required, there are lots of suppliers offering native hedge plants these days, like the collection from the Wiggly Wigglers which I’ve often wished I had the space to plant. This particular collection includes ‘blackthorn (for sloe gin), crab apple (for jelly), damson (for jam and a luscious homemade alternative to Ribena), dog rose (for rosehip syrup), elderberry (for flu-preventing syrups from the berries in autumn and delicious cordial from the flowers in spring), hazel (for cob nuts), cherry plum and wild pear (for jams, liqueurs and syrups)’. (Links in the blog are not sponsored – they are simply from companies that I have used in the past and liked.)
2. Look up – Walls and Fences
In a small space it is important to use the vertical as well as horizontal plane. We’ve covered the fences around the whole garden with a mixture of soft fruit and trained fruit trees to expand our growing space and hide unpleasant concrete and overlooking windows.
I’ve enjoyed growing our three apple espaliers (‘Bountiful’, ‘Egremont Russet and ‘James Grieve’) as they provide such structure and style along the boundaries. We also have a pink seedless grape ‘Reliance’ trained up the end espalier wire next to a fig ‘White Marseille’. There’s a thornless blackberry ‘Apache’ trained up wires at the back of the garden with a plum ‘Opal’ and greengage ‘Cambridge Gage’ in front, helping to screen the windows of the overlooking houses. The fruit cage has two rows of summer and autumn raspberries at the back, screening next door’s shed and we’ve covered a blank section of wall at the front with a cordon apple ‘Fiesta’.
With the foliage, blossom and fruits, trained fruit trees and bushes should be grown more in our gardens. Requiring little maintenance, except at pruning and feeding times, they form the backbone of our relatively small garden and bring us much pleasure throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.
Cordons, fans and espaliers are all suitable for growing against walls and fences
3. Build a Green Roof
In the same spirit of using vertical spaces, I’ve tried to use horizontal spaces even when they are off the ground. When I got tired of ugly bins of the driveway, I designed a binstore with a local carpenter and included a green roof to create more growing space. This is now filled with a mix of edibles and ornamentals – sedum, dianthus, thrift, sempervivums (which although not edible, have a juice with herbal properties similar to Aloe vera and are hardy into the bargain), chillies, herbs and nasturtiums.
The herbs (thyme, lemon thyme, summer savoury, golden marjoram and French tarragon) are thriving, as are the succulents, thrift and dianthus. The chillies have suffered from lack of water at times, so if I plant them in the roof again I’ll need to keep more of an eye on them if we want a larger crop. I’m also intending to try alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’) in the roof next year to develop the edible theme.
4. Spread Scented Ground Cover
Many herbs provide great ground cover, adding attractive foliage, flowers and scent to a garden, whilst also being extremely useful in the kitchen. Our front garden had a muddy path to which we’ve added paving and gravel, leaving plenty of space to plant ground cover herbs. There is a range of thymes, including woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), creeping white thyme (Thymus serpyllum var. albus) and creeping lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurea’), alongside pennyroyal mint (Mentha pulegium) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). They create an aromatic effect as you wander along the path (along with the oregano which has self-seeded down the side passage and releases the most lovely scent when we put the bins out). They are enjoying the location, in full sun, and have rewarded us by increasing in size, creating plenty of ground cover even when they’ve just been harvested.
We turned the weedy muddy area into a path with room for ground cover herbs
5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg
Many vegetable patches are visible from the house these days rather than hidden at the bottom of a long plot, so it’s important to consider how the productive area will add to the aesthetics of the garden. Including annuals and perennials with edible flowers in the vegetable patch is an easy way to engage children with gardening and create a visually appealing, vibrant space.
We grow calendula, borage, bergamot, marigolds, nasturtiums, viola, dianthus, primroses and lavender either in the veg beds or elsewhere in the garden. Although they don’t add a great amount of bulk to meals, they can be used to brighten up salads, cakes, biscuits and ice-cubes, adding a bit of creative fun to family meals.
Colourful vegetables are also a valuable addition to an ornamental vegetable patch as they create visual interest. From pea ‘Blauschokker’ with its delicate purple flowers and deep purple pods, rainbow chard with its thick stems shining like jewels in the sun to purple kohl rabi with UFO shaped swollen stems, there are so many interesting coloured vegetables from which to choose.
6. Pot it up
If you don’t have a fruit and vegetable patch, but want to grow ornamental crops, containers could be the answer. Several years ago I bought a great book called ‘Crop in Pots’ by Bob Purnell. I loved the illustrations which pay as much attention to creating attractive displays as they do to providing food for the table.
I’ve tried several of the combinations over the years and made up some of my own, like the fruit salad hanging baskets for the school fete with alpine strawberries (we used Fragraria vesca ‘Baron Solemacher’) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’) with its deep brown stems and bronze flush to the leaves.
Even with a small patio, windowbox or windowsill, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants which taste good too. My chilli collection includes some really ornamental plants like ‘Numex Twilight’ and ‘Purple Gusto’. I also love edible houseplants like Vanilla Grass (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix) which can bring a little productive beauty into any house, whether or not it has a garden.
Growing edibles is in the garden is great fun and connects us with the origins of our food, reminding us of the fundamental yet often overlooked role plants play in our busy, modern lives. Best of all, in an ornamental edible garden, a feast for the eyes can be transformed into a feast for the table and that’s a truly beautiful thing.
What are your favourite ornamental and edible combinations? Do leave me a comment and let me know what you are growing and how it’s going. What would you advise me to try next in the colourful veggie patch and what new varieties are on your wish list?
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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.